What DfID appointment and new PM's voting record tell us about 'May-era aid'

By Molly Anders 15 July 2016

New U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is welcomed by staff when she arrives in 10 Downing Street for the first time. Photo by: Tom Evans / Crown Copyright / CC BY-NC-ND

Almost two years ago exactly, then-U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening stood on stage at the 2014 Girl Summit in London’s Walworth Academy, drawing the world’s attention to the more than 130 million girls globally who have experienced female genital mutilation, and the more than 250 million girls that are currently married before the age of 15. Standing next to Greening was the former home secretary, now Prime Minister Theresa May.

With the exception of the Girl Summit, May has rarely taken a stand on aid-related issues, and little is known about how May’s aid agenda compares to former Prime Minister David Cameron’s relatively aid-positive platform.

Her voting record yields a few clues: ambivalence toward climate and emissions regulation as well as the Sustainable Development Goals; disinterest in accommodating refugees and aiding in the migrant crisis; and complete silence on the U.K.’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid.

Perhaps also indicative of May’s attitudes is Cameron’s request, in his last days as prime minister, that May spare the aid benchmark — a cornerstone of Cameron’s administration.

May’s choice for the new head of the Department for International Development, the Conservative Member of Parliament Priti Patel, may also be telling. Rumors swirled on Thursday, first over who May would choose, then over whether she would scrap DfID and sell it for parts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, despite the pledged for “an independent DfID” in the 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto.

Members of the development community expressed shock and concern over her choice of Patel, a former employment minister and an advocate of leaving the EU. Patel has previously called on the government to do away with the very agency she will now lead and has claimed aid is being “wasted on bonuses for pen-pushers.”

Despite Patel’s past critiques, her first address as head of DfID bore a reassuringly Greening-esque tone. “Successfully leaving the European Union will require a more outward looking Britain than ever before … deepening our international partnerships to secure our place in the world by supporting economic prosperity, stability and security overseas,” Patel said.

Patel’s remarks emphasized supporting the private sector, upholding national interests abroad and sharing DfID’s operations (and budget) across government departments. “We will continue to tackle the great challenges of our time: poverty, disease and the causes of mass migration, while helping to create millions of jobs in countries across the developing world — our trading partners of the future,” she said.

May and Patel may attempt a seamless hand-off of Cameron’s aid agenda, which has earned the U.K. praise as a role-model donor and innovator in the global development landscape or, as one member of parliament speculates above, Patel and May could be preparing for something more drastic.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, Devex dug into May’s voting record over the last three years. Her past votes related to aid objectives and spending could shed light on the size and shape of May-era British aid.

A not-so-sunny outlook for the environment

May very rarely voted in opposition to the Conservative Party position, and some of her votes on climate and emissions only applied domestically. Regardless, her stance against measuring or capping emissions defies recommendations set out in the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, as well as the U.N. Sustainable Development Agenda, both of which the United Kingdom is a signatory of.

For example, on March 14 May voted against requiring a strategy for carbon capture and storage for the U.K.’s energy industry, and also against setting a decarbonization target for the U.K. within six months of June 2016 with mandatory progress reviews, a recommendation set out in the Paris agreement.

In the wake of widespread and destructive flooding in the country, May also voted against instituting a thorough climate risk assessment that considers how implementing the Paris agreement’s recommendations would affect future flood risks.

Finally, in 2013, May voted against setting a target range for the amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases produced per unit of electricity generated.

Priti Patel, Conservative member of the U.K. Parliament, will replace Justine Greening as the country’s secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

Dignity for British citizens and residents, but not for migrants

In those rare instances when May crossed party lines, she typically did so to advocate for the right of same-sex couples to marry, or to push for greater protection for gay and lesbian rights in the U.K. When it came to protecting vulnerable people outside of the U.K. however, or protecting vulnerable asylum-seekers, May struck a different tone.

In April, May voted not to ban the detention and deportation of pregnant women migrating to the U.K. and voted not to take extenuating circumstances into account in the immigration detention of vulnerable people. She also voted in April against a proposal to bring 3,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.K. who are currently refugees in Europe.

Along the same lines, May voted to extend the government’s power to deport an individual without considering appeal to remain in order to escape human rights abuses in home countries. She also voted to restrict the support available to failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants.

Finally, May voted against a September 2015 measure that called for “greater international efforts through the United Nations to secure the position of refugees across the Middle East against the U.K. playing a full role, with others, in providing sanctuary.”

Still, May’s voting record yielded some aid wins, particularly for humanitarian assistance. After it was reported that chemical weapons were being used against civilians in the Syrian conflict, May broke ranks to vote for a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and acknowledging the potential need for military action. The measure was defeated when MPs — returning from summer recess to vote on the legislation — said another vote was needed from the House of Commons.

International tax and corruption

The recent Panama leaks exposed the questionable tax dealings of more than 300 multinational corporations, a third of them British or based in British territories. The scandal prompted an outcry in the development community, calling for tougher policy on tax avoidance and the recovery of the more than $200 billion in developing country assets lost annually to non-existent or exploitative tax regulation. Voting along party lines, May consistently voted not to strengthen tax regulation, even after Cameron pledged to do more to curb harmful tax practices both in the U.K. and abroad.

In April, only a month before the Corruption Summit, May voted not to implement a series of proposals intended to reduce tax avoidance and evasion. Only a few months before, May also voted against publishing full details of the Government's tax settlement with Google and against the recent international agreement to implement country-by-country reporting of company accounts.

Despite casting votes on other measures on the same day, May did not vote when the majority of MPs supported the early adoption of the new global standard on automatic exchange of tax information, which aims to reduce tax avoidance. The same measure welcomed “other measures to reduce the exploitation of differences in tax regimes between countries.”

Aid spending

Unlike May’s voting record on the environment, immigration and corruption, her stance on the aid budget is murky. In fact, May managed to avoid voting on any of the more than half-dozen measures related to enshrining the aid budget at 0.7 percent of GNI.

At the same time, it’s possible May is among those who question to efficacy of aid benchmarks such as the 0.7 percent of GNI commitment and the more recent decision to dedicate 2 percent of GNI to the defence budget, on which, notably, May also didn’t vote.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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Molly Andersmollyanders_dev

Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.


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